On the re-opening of SLPP Office … “We would never encourage violence” John Benjamin...

Sierra Leone News: Ebola and the failure of governance

As the Ebola crisis continues to devastate, Desmond Davies examines how the chaotic response in dealing with the deadly epidemic is a direct offshoot of failure by the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and questions how poor governance precipitates crises in Africa at large
While the focus on the unprecedented spread of the Ebola virus and record number of deaths has been on inadequate health facilities in these countries  especially Sierra Leone and Liberia that had undergone years of devastating civil wars, what has been overlooked is the woeful failure of these governments to provide timely and accurate information to their citizens when the virus first began its assault. Indeed, the virus had telegraphed its intentions when it emerged in Guinea earlier this year: that Sierra Leone and Liberia would be next if nothing was done to stem the onslaught. Those who happened to warn of an impending catastrophe were dismissed as alarmists while political leaders in Sierra Leone and Liberia buried their heads in the sand.
This response is symptomatic of a malaise afflicting many African countries  more so in West Africa: the tendency of governments to withhold the most mundane of information from the public. It is not surprising, therefore, that rumours and misinformation abound, complicating matters. It was because the rumour mill took charge in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia that the governments failed to rein in recalcitrant citizens who refused to heed the belated warnings about what is Ebola and how to combat the virus.
In Liberia, residents of Monrovia attacked an Ebola isolation clinic because they were wary of it being in their midst. When the Liberian government attempted to curtail movement in one of the city’s slums, the residents rebelled, forcing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to order troops to enforce the order.
In Sierra Leone, President Ernest Koroma announced a state of emergency, giving powers to the army to ensure that people stayed indoors between 5pm and 5am. It appeared that this did not work because the government announced a four-day lockdown last month, whereby Sierra Leoneans all over the country had to stay indoors for the duration of the lockdown. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, these were clearly desperate measures to deal with a desperate situation.
Misinformation has been responsible for misunderstandings that have led to violence or civil disobedience in West Africa. For instance, in 2004, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) was on the cusp of eradicating polio by undertaking an immunisation programme in Nigeria, the last bastion of the disease, rumour and information led to people in the northern part of the country refusing to be part of the exercise. Rumour had it that it was aimed at Muslims, with the claim that the vaccine was the HIV/AIDS virus.
This was not the case, but the damage had been done. The misinformation campaign set the programme back many years  to the extent that Nigeria is still the country that is hosting the largest number of polio cases in the world. Even with its sophisticated public communication apparatus, the WHO failed to counter the rumours in Northern Nigeria.
The capacity of governments, whether national or local, to communicate effectively with citizens is a basic function of modern government. The Department for International Development (DfID), which is spearheading the UK’s development assistance programme, including current support for the fight against the Ebola virus in West Africa, came up with key characteristics of good governance regimes in 2006, including state capability; responsiveness; and accountability.
Alas, the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia appear to have failed miserably in this test. For instance, the leaders have shown that their governments are unable to get things done; they have not been able to respond to the needs of their citizens during the Ebola crisis; and citizens have not been able to hold their leaders and governments accountable for their failure to mitigate the spread of the Ebola virus.
The World Bank’s Communication for Governance and Accountability Programme, in a policy brief on government communication capacity to achieving good governance, noted: “Legitimacy is…earned by leaders who possess the ability to communicate a clear vision for the country as well as policy choices and trade-offs they have made on the public’s behalf. Integral to the goal of legitimacy is the capacity to carry out two-way communication with citizens in a meaningful and ongoing manner.”
As the World Bank paper also pointed out, it should not be merely the case of dishing out information. “The willingness and ability to speak with citizens must be coupled with a willingness and ability to listen to them, incorporate their needs and preferences into the policy process, and engage local patterns of influence and trusted sources of information.”
If this is the case, then the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia lack legitimacy because of their failure to open channels for getting feedback from their citizens. It is not surprising that in Liberia, the people want the government to step down in favour of one of “national unity”.
The weak information and communication networks have left these three governments vulnerable and their citizens at a loss as to what to do to fend off the Ebola virus. “Giving vulnerable people the right to information at the right time is a form of empowerment. It enables people to make the decisions most appropriate for themselves and their families and can mean the difference between being a victim or a survivor,” noted the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Governments in Africa do not give public communication the priority it deserves. They invariably give press/communication officer roles to lowly placed officials or junior journalists who just disseminate official speeches that confound not only journalists but also the target constituents.
These governments view the role for communication as a minor one, instead of one that should be part of senior management. Many do not understand the complexity of the communication process in government. They do not know how to communicate strategically.
In the UK, the British government has the capacity to deliver a public information leaflet to every household in the country within 24 hours. There are over 1,000 communication professionals working for the UK government “taking the public’s pulse on timely issues; consulting relevant constituencies; and collecting, packaging and disseminating information likely to be of interest to the public,” the World Bank paper noted.
In the case of the US, the White House’s Communication Office, at the touch of a button, can reach all the major US and international media organisations. The Department for Defence has the highest number of communication and public affairs professionals of all US government departments and institutions, given that the American military is constantly battling to win hearts and minds in the many areas around the world where it is locked in conflict.
Apart from the communication deficit, the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have been entirely dependent on foreign assistance to deal with the Ebola crisis. President Koroma took the WHO to task for what he felt was a slow response to the crisis in Sierra Leone. Surely, it was not the WHO that contested elections in Sierra Leone with the promise to make life better for Sierra Leoneans? After all, it was Koroma’s All Peoples Congress (APC) that made that promise during its election campaign.
But Koroma could hardly be blamed for thinking that it is the duty of the “international community” to redeem Sierra Leone. After all, when he first came to power in 2007, Sierra Leone was effectively a Trusteeship, run by the UN and bankrolled by DfiD, which was providing a sizeable chunk of the government’s budget. In 2000 the UN had stepped in to shore up the Sierra Leone People’s Party government of the late President Tejan Kabbah, at the end of a long and bloody civil war, with 17,000 peacekeepers and a host of civilian administrators. Although the UN has withdrawn, the government seems to still be dependent on outside help to deal with basic issues.
It is the same situation in Liberia where the UN currently has a huge peacekeeping force and civilian administration. These troops are being gradually drawn down in the hope that the Liberian government will take charge of its responsibility.
Then there is the perennial problem of corruption that has hit the health sector badly, ensuring that these countries fail to respond adequately to the Ebola threat. Recently, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim noted: “Each dollar lost to corruption is a dollar stolen from a pregnant woman who needs health care; or from a girl or boy who deserves an education; or from communities that need roads and clean water.”
Transparency International places Sierra Leone and Liberia at the top of its corruption perception index. But what the index fails to take into account is that despite that fact that there is corruption in these two countries, a lot of it is perpetrated by businesses from foreign countries that do not feature highly in the perception index.
Just before the US-Africa Summit convened by President Barack Obama in August, Washington-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) released a report that said that over a 10-year- period  2002 to 2011  Africa lost almost $600 billion through trade misinvoicing. “Illicit financial outflows are by far the most damaging economic problem facing Africa,” said GFI President Raymond Baker, who sits on the UN High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa.
“In 2011 alone, $76.9 billion flowed illegally out of Africa. That’s nearly $77 billion that could have been invested in local businesses, in healthcare, in education, or in infrastructure,” Baker said “It’s money that could have been used to help pull people out of poverty and save lives.”
GFI research found that $555.8 billion flowed illicitly out of Africa between 2002 and 2011, fuelling crime, corruption, and tax evasion, while simultaneously draining hundreds of billions of dollars from African economies. The problem was so severe that a May 2013 joint report from GFI and the African Development Bank found that, after adjusting all recorded flows of money to and from the continent (e.g. debt, investment, exports, imports, foreign aid, remittances, etc.) for illicit financial outflows, between 1980 and 2009, Africa was a net creditor to the rest of the world to the tune of between $597 billion and $1.4 trillion.
“The traditional thinking has always been that the West is pouring money into Africa through foreign aid and other private sector flows, without receiving much in return. Our research has turned that logic upside down  Africa has been a net creditor to the rest of the world for decades,” added Baker, a long-time authority on financial crime.
“The implication of this finding is broad and profound: More money flows out of Africa than flows in. Without concrete action, the drain on the continent is only going to grow larger.”
GFI, a research and advocacy organisation, highlighted the role of the US as a major facilitator of such outflows. “For every country losing money illicitly, there is another country absorbing it. Illicit financial outflows are facilitated by financial opacity in tax havens and in Western economies like the United States,” noted Heather Lowe, GFI’s legal counsel and director of government affairs.
“Indeed, the United States is the second easiest country in the worldafter Kenyafor a criminal, kleptocrat or terrorist to incorporate an anonymous company to launder their ill-gotten-gains with impunity. It’s high time that the US government come to terms with this reality and lay out specific policies, which it intends to implement to curb its status as a dirty money haven,” she said.
At the end of the US-Africa Summit, the leaders agreed to step up their efforts to counter corruption, which Obama said “costs African economies tens of billions of dollars every year  money that ought to be invested in the people of Africa”.
He added: “Several leaders raised the idea of a new partnership to combat illicit finance, and there was widespread agreement. So we decided to convene our experts and develop an action plan to promote the transparency that is essential to economic growth.”
The failure of the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to communicate effectively with citizens, and the ever-present scourge of corruption have compounded the catastrophic effect of the Ebola virus. The WHO has warned that it would take another six months to rein in the virus and that by then 20,000 people could have been infected.
With hindsight, these governments have come to recognise that they were slow to respond to this crisis, arguing that it was because it was unprecedented. No one really appreciated the scale of the problem and how quickly the disease would spread. But this should be a wake-up call to African governments to put effective communication systems in place to prepare for emergencies.
One thing favouring these governments is the proliferation of mobile devices could play a major role in increasing access to timely and accurate information.
This article was first published in the October 2014 edition of New African magazine in London.
Wednesday October 08, 2014

Comments are closed.